The Canterbury Tales


The Prioress' Tale

The Prioress is the head of a convent and, as such, holds a relatively high social position and enjoys relative economic comfort. She chooses to introduce her story by singing a hymn that praises the Virgin Mary. The idea of a hymn plays a central role in the story, so that this singing makes more sense after her story is concluded.

The Prioress’s story is set in a Christian town somewhere in Asia. Though Christian, the town has a large Jewish population, and there is a Jewish ghetto, where the Jews are to live. The school for the Christian children is located on the other side of the ghetto, and the Christian children walk through the ghetto in order to get to school. One of the students, a young child, Hugh of Lincoln, hears the older students at the school sing a hymn, “O Alma Redemptoris.” He memorizes the words and begins to practice it, determined to be able to sing the entire song on Christmas Day. His singing of a Christian hymn draws the attention of Satan, who tells a group of Jewish men that the boy is singing a Christian song in their ghetto to intentionally violate Jewish holy laws. The men decide to hire a murderer, who kills the boy by slitting his throat and then tosses his body in a cesspool. The boy’s mother begins a frantic search for the boy, but those who know where he is lie to her, saying they do not know where he is. Jesus intervenes and tells the widow the directions to where the child was killed. As the mother gets closer to her child’s body, suddenly everyone hears his voice singing the hymn. The city provost punishes the Jews for the murder by having them drawn and then hung.

The boy, though still singing, is clearly dead. They take his body to a church. As his burial mass approaches, the boy tells them that Jesus has told him to continue singing the hymn until he is buried. He also says that the Virgin Mary placed a pearl on his tongue and that he was to continue singing until someone removed the pearl. One of the monks then takes the pearl away from the child, who stops singing and is dead. The child is...

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Essays About The Canterbury Tales